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The Apocrypha

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

Why 66 books - the Canon of Scripture The Hebrew scriptures
The Apocrypha The Pseudepigrapha
History of the English Bible

The Apocrypha

The term ‘Apocrypha’ means ‘hidden’ or ‘concealed’. It was first given this name by Jerome to mean ‘non-canonical’. It consists of twelve books which were included in some copies of the Greek Septuagint, but which were not included in the Hebrew Scriptures. Most of the material was written in the last two centuries BC and the first century AD, a few centuries after Jews considered the canon of Scripture to be closed.

Protestant churches exclude the Apocrypha from the canon of Scripture because the documents are not considered to be divinely inspired. They have many historical and geographical inaccuracies. For example the Book of Judith says that Nebuchadnezzar was king of Assyria, ruling from Nineveh (1:1). The story of Bel and the Dragon has the prophet Habakkuk appearing to Daniel in the lion’s den, even though Habakkuk lived many years before Daniel (Bel 33). They also teach doctrines and practices which disagree with teaching in the New Testament. For example, the Book of Tobit teaches that giving to the poor atones for sin (Tobit 12:9). The Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is based on 2 Maccabees, where Judas and his men prayed for the dead men killed in battle who were wearing idolatrous images under their clothes (12:39-45).

However, the apocryphal books can be interesting to read, as they give a clearer picture of the cultural and historical situation that Jesus was born into. They give valuable information on Jewish history, thought, worship and religious practice in the last centuries BC. As an academic resource they can be useful, but would not be recommended as devotional books, or for public reading or teaching in churches.

Luther did not regard them as scripture, but as "useful and good for reading". The Anglican 39 articles admit them only for private edification, not to be read publicly in church.

List of Books in the Apocrypha

1 Esdras
2 Esdras
The Additions to Esther
The Wisdom of Solomon
Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah
The Additions to Daniel
The Prayer of Manasseh
1 Maccabees
2 Maccabees

Several manuscripts of the Septuagint also include 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, and Psalm 151. These are included in the Bible of the Orthodox Church.

Summary of the twelve books

There are four books of Esdras. These are the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the OT, plus two apocryphal books. The names of the books are confusing, as different titles are given to them in different versions of the Bible.

1 Esdras (150 BC) (3 Esdras in Vulgate)

1 Esdras gives an account of the restoration of the Jews to the land after the Babylonian exile. It is a historical account drawn from 2 Chronicles 35-36, Ezra and Nehemiah 8-9, with much legendary material added. It includes the story of the three guardsmen (1 Esdras 3:1 - 5:6) debating before emperor Darius what was the strongest thing in the world: wine, woman or truth. Zerubbabel gave the correct answer - Truth, and as a reward was allowed to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem.

2 Esdras (AD 100) (4 Esdras in Vulgate)

2 Esdras is a Jewish apocalypse, containing seven visions given to Shealtiel, who is normally identified as Ezra. He laments over the situation of exiled Israel and looks for a Messianic figure to restore the nation to its former glory. It answers questions of the problem of evil, suffering, persecution, the end of the world, judgement and the new world. It was written in Hebrew and translated into Greek in the late second century AD. Luther was so confused after reading this book, he was said to have thrown it into the River Elbe.

Tobit (early second century BC)

The Book of Tobit is a pious short novel, which is strongly Pharisaic. It aims to instruct Jews in proper attitudes of piety before God. It gives us a picture of Jewish piety and morality just before NT times, emphasising the law, clean food, ceremonial washing, charity, fasting and prayer. It teaches that giving to the poor atones for sin (Tobit 12:9).

Judith (middle second century BC)

The Book of Judith is another Pharisaic novel about Judith, who was a beautiful Jewish widow. When her city was besieged by the Assyrians, she took clean Jewish food out to the tent of the attacking general. He was enamoured by her beauty and allowed her into his tent. He drank too much and fell into a drunken stupor. Judith took his sword and out off his head. She left, taking his head with her. She hung it on the wall of the city, and the leaderless Assyrian army was defeated. The book seems to have no basis of historical fact, and contains chronological errors.

Additions to Esther (100 BC)

The OT Book of Esther has no explicit mention of God, so six passages in Greek were added later to compensate for this and to give it a more religious style. Esther and Mordecai fasted, but no mention is made of their prayers in the Book of Esther. Long prayers are added, as well as some letters supposedly from Artaxerxes, and a dream that Mordecai had.

ADream of Mordecai11:2 - 12:6Prologue
BEdict of Artxerxes against Jews13:1-7After 3:13
CPrayers of Mordecai and Esther13:8 - 14:19After 4:17
DEsther before King Xerxes15:1-16After 4:17
EThe Edict of Defence16:1-24After 8:12
FMeaning of Mordecai's Dream10:4 - 11:1After 10:3

The Wisdom of Solomon (100 BC)

The Wisdom of Solomon is similar to the OT books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. It uses traditional Jewish material, with ideas borrowed from Greek philosophy. The reader is exhorted to seek personified Wisdom. It was written to keep the Jews from falling into scepticism, materialism and idolatry. Some early church leaders counted this book as part of the NT. It is included in the Muratorian Canon.

Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach (180 BC)

This is one of the longer books. It is also similar to Proverbs, containing much traditional Jewish religious wisdom and practical advice. It was written in Hebrew by a man called Joshua (or Jesus) and translated into Greek by his grandson. John Wesley quoted from this book in his sermons. It is still used in the Anglican Church.

Baruch (about AD 100)

This claims to have been written by Jeremiah's secretary Baruch in 582 BC. It was probably written in an attempt to explain the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. It consists of four distinct discourses, urging the Jews not to revolt again and to submit to the emperor. The sixth chapter contains the so-called ‘Letter of Jeremiah’, with strong warnings about idolatry, which was probably addressed to the Jews in captivity. It is similar to the letter sent by Jeremiah in Jer 29.

Additions to Daniel (100 BC)

These stories were added to the book of Daniel when it was translated into Greek.

a. The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men

This follows Daniel 3:23 in the LXX and the Vulgate. The prayer of Azariah was uttered in the furnace recognises the divine justice of the Babylonian exile. This is followed by a song praising God as the three walk about in the fiery furnace where they were thrown by Nebuchadnezzar. It borrows heavily from Psalm 148.

b. Susanna - added as chapter 13 of Daniel.

Susanna was a beautiful wife of a leading Jew in Babylon. The Jewish elders and judges frequently came to his house. Two of them tried to seduce Susanna. She cried out and the two elders said she was found in the arms of a young man. She was put on trial, and there were two witnesses who agreed, so she was sentenced to death for adultery. Daniel interrupted and cross-examined the witnesses, asking each one under which tree they had found Susanna and the young man. They gave different answers, so were put to death and Susanna was saved.

c. Bel and the Dragon - added as chapter 14 of Daniel, consists of two stories to ridicule idolatry.

1. King Cyrus asked Daniel why he didn't worship Bel, who showed his greatness by consuming sheep, flour and oil daily. Daniel scattered ashes on the floor of the temple. The next morning the King took Daniel to the temple to show him that Bel had eaten the food during the night. Daniel showed the King the footprints of the priests in the ashes who had taken the food. The priests were killed and the temple destroyed.

2. A mighty dragon worshipped in Babylon is destroyed by Daniel, who is thrown into the lion's den, where he is preserved for six days. On the sixth day, the prophet Habakkuk is miraculously transported from Judea to give Daniel food, and on the seventh day he is released.

The Prayer of Manasseh (second cent BC)

This is the supposed prayer of repentance of the wicked king Manasseh during his imprisonment in Babylonia, mentioned in 2 Chr 33:12-20. The prayer is not in the Bible, so was added later.

1 Maccabees (100 BC)

This is the most valuable book in the Apocrypha, describing the exploits of the three Maccabean brothers - Judas, Jonathan and Simon. It covers the events from 175 to 134 BC, from the struggle against Antiochus Epiphanes to the rise of John Hyrcanus. It teaches that the Maccabean (or Hasmonean) family was chosen by God to save Israel and victory is given to those who are faithful to God. This book, together with Josephus, are the best historical sources of this period.

2 Maccabees (first cent BC)

This is a parallel account to the earlier part of 1 Maccabees, covering the victories of Judas Maccabeus, in a more legendary manner. It is a condensation of a five-volume history by Jason of Cyrene, from the time of High Priest Onias III (180 BC) to the death of Nicanor (161 BC). There is a strong emphasis on the loyalty to the law and God's rewards for martyrs. It contains several contradictions and chronological errors. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is based on 2 Macc 12:39-45, where Judas and his men prayed for the dead men killed in battle, who were wearing idolatrous images of gods under their clothes.

Testimony of exclusion from Canon.

Philo (20 BC - AD 40) quoted from the OT, but never from the Apocrypha. Josephus (AD 30-100) numbers the OT books as 22, explicitly excluding the Apocrypha. Jesus and NT writers quote from the OT hundreds of times, but never quote from the Apocrypha. The Jewish scholars of Jamnia (AD 90) did not recognise it. No canon or council of the Christian church for the first four centuries recognised it as inspired.

Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem and Athanasius spoke against it. Jerome (340-420), the great scholar and translator of the Vulgate, rejected it, in dispute with Augustine who added it to the Vulgate.

The books of the apocrypha were rejected by many Roman Catholic scholars during the reformation period, and by Luther and the other reformers. In Luther's German Bible, they were separated and placed at the end of the OT, and given the name Apocrypha.

The books were finally included by the Roman Catholic church at the counter-reformation Council of Trent (1546) and are now counted as fully inspired scripture by the Catholics. They are known by Catholics as the Deuterocanonical books, as they were accepted as scripture later than other books (the protocanonical books).

Related articles

Why 66 books - the Canon of Scripture The Hebrew scriptures
The Apocrypha The Pseudepigrapha
History of the English Bible